"Action, Struggle, and Fun!" 

40 years ago, neighbors built a community center in a cement factory. Today they have paved roads, clean air, and environmental protections as a result.

In 1976, less than two years after the death of General Franco and the collapse of his dictatorship, the City of Barcelona built a cement factory at the heart of the neighborhood of Neu Barris. Barcelona was growing fast, the argument went, and the plant was needed to provide construction materials for a nearby highway. 

The neighborhood of Neu Barris runs along the foothills of the Collserola mountain range that rings the northern tip of the city. It is also known as one of the poorer areas of the municipality, long composed primarily of immigrants and working class families. 

As soon as the factory started operating it began to discharge clouds of fine gray powder. Residents began to notice that the clothes they hung up to dry outside their window started to shrivel as they came into contact with this dust from the plant. Kids developed breathing problems as they inhaled the same poisonous air. Public health problems spiked. 

As anger grew, a new slogan emerged among the streets, soon to be plastered along alley walls and hung from balconies: “SALVEMOS NUESTROS PULMONES!” (Save Our Lungs).

Neighbors quickly commissioned a report from the College of Engineers on the new plant. The findings were damning, stating point-blank that these facilities should not be built less than two kilometers away from residential areas. This one was across the street.

The neighborhood’s Organizing Committee took this evidence to the City which, under intense pressure from the community, committed to closing down the plant. Several months later, however, the City went back on its word. 

Furious, residents met on a cold and clear January morning in 1977 and decided that if the City wouldn’t demolish the factory, they would. A delegation equipped with rope, hammers, and pickaxes marched to the plant and - while the police were busy containing another neighborhood demonstration for improved school conditions - proceeded to dismantle all of the interior machinery throughout the factory. 

Incredibly, the Major refused to press charges against those involved in the destruction. So popular was their action that he did not even try to demand liability for the structure, preferring as one local newspaper put it: to live “an easy life” rather than taking on the people’s organization.  

Nou Barris residents carry banner that reads "Salvemos Nuestros Pulmones: Fuera La Planta" (Save Our Lungs: Out with the Plant)

The most remarkable part of this story, however, is what the community of Neu Barris did next. Having stopped the factory from poisoning their families, the community members transformed this symbol of Franco-era industrial exploitation into a home for culture, organizing, and democracy

Slowly, they converted the skeleton of the old factory into a community space dedicated to music, circus (which had been banned under Franco), theater, poetry, debates, and exhibitions. Thousands of people attended the opening celebrations a few months after the demolition took place, and together they christened this space La Ateneu Popular de Neu Barris

If you read my second blog post on Barcelona, you’ll remember that Ateneus or “Atheneums” were neighborhood-based associations for the advancement of learning. Particularly popular in the early 1900’s, these public spaces fostered many of the leaders behind Barcelona’s strong union movement. Ateneu Popular de Neu Barris positioned itself at the front of the next generation of these ‘democracy schools.’

The old cement plant soon after rechristened La Ateneu Popular

Over the years, the role of the Ateneu grew for the community of Neu Barris. As the economic crisis of the 1980’s led to a heroin epidemic across Spain, the center worked to open a youth hub, launching a series of juggling, stilt-walking, trapeze, and other workshops to keep young-adults off the streets. 

Organizing efforts also led to paved roads for the neighborhood, public lighting, and environmental protection of the surrounding mountain landscape. As fights for women’s suffrage reemerged after Francoism collapsed, the center became one of the central hubs for women in Barcelona organizing for equal rights as well. 

As relationships and networks were strengthened through these local campaigns, Ateneu Neu Barris began to serve as an avenue for engaging in more global issues. When global free-trade policies led to the closure of local businesses and widespread loss of jobs, the community collectively participated in national strike actions, protested far-right resurgence in fascism and even demonstrated against Spain’s entry into NATO.

Posted on the Ateneu's Facebook Page under the heading "Things we are Clear About: Nou Barris - Antifascist." 

One of the Ateneu's circus performances this year.

But the political work of the neighborhood – both then and now – constitutes only a small portion of the activity in La Ateneu. In addition to serving as a platform for community organizing, the space brought life back into the neighborhood after nearly 40 years under authoritarian rule. Groups were formed to reinstate the carnivals which had been banned under Franco and even invented new festivals such as “La Cultura Va de Fiesta” (The Culture Goes Partying) which hosts hundreds of visitors each year. 

The inseparable relationship between this political and cultural work is perfectly captured in the Ateneu’s motto today: “Action, Struggle and Fun.” 

The Editor of the local Carrer Magazine, described the nature of this relationship well when he wrote that that the culture of the Ateneu “should entertain, but also explain why things are as they are, discuss them and foster the necessary responses.” For this to happen, he continued “The Athenaeum need[s] to be managed by the residents.”

The last part of this quote is profoundly important. Throughout the 40-year history of Ateneu Nou Barris, it faced stubborn pressure from the city to convert into a civic center “attached to the municipal government and with a public official as director.” Yet despite the additional funds this would bring – plus the pressure it would take off the community’s shoulders of running such a large organization – the community has fought to maintain its community led structure. 

When I asked one of the residents who grew up participating in Neu Barris why this element of community-control is so critical, her response was simple “because we know what it is like to have no control at all.” “Under Franco,” she continued, “people, and especially Catalans, had no choice but to do what they were told. We will never give up our freedom again, and the only way we can maintain it is if we stand together.” 

Community members enter en mass into the old cement factory, on January 9, 1977.

Community members reenacting the demolition of the plant to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Ateneu

The United States is not Catalonia. There are many parts of this story that stem from the unique culture that has built up this region over centuries. So it is obvious that trying to transplant ideas –  or even translate them – from one world to the other is difficult. 

Even so, there are important lessons we in the United States can and should take away from the story of Ateneu Popular de Neu Barris. I would call our attention to three in particular: 

First, we should learn that one of the first steps in organizing is to find, claim, or create public spaces where people can come together, often across differences, and act on shared interests (be it a union hall, civic center, or gutted cement factory). 

Second, strong community institutions will focus on fun community activities AND political struggles. People cannot have fun if their children cannot breathe, and strong political communities will not last unless there is a shared feeling of culture. 

Finally, for an institution to persist over time and be accountable to people's needs it must belong to the community. Note who it does not belong to as a result: it does not belong to the City, it does not belong to a non-profit, it is not run by a paid professional staff who come in to provide charity or service. In this case, La Ateneu Popular de Nou Barris is a crystal clear example of the Iron Rule in community organizing: "Never ever do for people what they can do for themselves."